January 27th, 2005

The Susan Rosenberg Debate

Susan Rosenberg just before her arraignment in 1984

A version of this blog post appeared in FrontPage Magazine on January 27, 2005.

They call academe the ivory tower. But sometimes the ivory tower is not as aloof as it often seems. To the contrary, as the faculty of Hamilton College gathered for their last monthly meeting of 2004, they tackled the agenda with such pragmatism and sincerity one might have mistaken the scene for a town hall meeting.

Except the debate wasn’t about war or taxes or health care. And then there was the philosophy professor who invoked Kant. No, the 800 pound gorilla was Susan L. Rosenberg, Hamilton’s newest faculty member. As an “artist/activist in residence” under the aegis of the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture, Ms. Rosenberg was scheduled teach a five-week seminar this winter titled “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity, and Change.”

Sound like a typical teacher? Think again. For only via an act of clemency, among 139 commutations and pardons President Clinton issued two hours before he left office in 2001, was Rosenberg freed from federal prison. Seventeen years earlier, she had been convicted of possessing false identification papers and a stockpile of illicit weapons, including over 600 pounds of explosives—approximately the same poundage Al Qaeda used to bomb the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. To be sure, the feds never charged Rosenberg with murder, but as National Review’s Jay Nordlinger wrote shortly after her commutation, she was a support player—“driver of getaway cars, hauler of weapons, securer of safe houses”—in the Weather Underground, the notorious American terrorist group active in the late 60s and 70s.

Rosenberg has steadfastly denied involvement in the Underground’s most infamous operation, the robbery of a Brink’s money truck in 1981 that left two people seriously wounded and three dead, including two police officers. Moreover, former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as a U.S. Attorney prosecuted the case, eventually dropped her indictment. Does the presumption of innocence before proven guilty exclude Susan Rosenberg?

Critics contextualize the Brink’s trial, as they do Ms. Rosenberg’s. In the former, the absence (due to memory loss) of a key witness compelled the government to shelve the charges against Ms. Rosenberg without prejudice. In the latter, with the courthouse thick with guards and helicopters whirring overhead, security was costly. Protests and Ms. Rosenberg’s theatrics—she proclaimed herself a “revolutionary guerrilla,” harangued the court about world affairs, demanded, and received, the maximum sentence for her “political” activities—further exacerbated the milieu. The government finally decided to spare taxpayers the expense and time for what would likely be a concurrent verdict.

Furthermore, as Roger Kimball opined in the Wall Street Journal in December, “It is by no means clear that Susan Rosenberg is an ‘an exemplar of rehabilitation,’” as Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Kirkland Project, calls her. Instead, in an interview on Pacifica radio days after her release, Ms. Rosenberg parses her words to renounce individual but not collective violence. “Nobody renounces collective violence,” Professor Rabinowitz assured me. In this way, Ms. Rosenberg’s alleged rehabilitation pertains to means, not ends; she remains an unreconstructed extremist, who even as the Kirkland Project inadvertently admitted in a statement, “maintain[s] her ideals.”

Indeed, Ms. Rosenberg exploits the cachet of her past to advance her present. This is why she terms her course one of “resistance,” implying not change but calcification, and clings to her self-description as a onetime “political prisoner.” “The last time I checked,” however, says Brent Newbury, president of the Rockland Country Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, “we don’t have political prisoners in this country. We have criminals.”

At the same time, Susan Rosenberg is on record in her clemency appeal as accepting responsibility for her actions and for renouncing violence. Both Birch Bayh, a former U.S. senator who chaired the subcommittee on constitutional rights, and the chaplain at Rosenberg’s penitentiary in Danbury, CT, under whose supervision she worked for three years, have vouched for her sincerity. And in any event, don’t actions speak louder than words? Ms. Rosenberg has a master’s degree in writing, has won four awards from PEN Prison Writing programs, and for the past several years has taught literature as an adjunct instructor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She also has lectured at such institutions as Columbia, Brown and Yale. Such progress was hard-earned and is hard evidence.

However, some believe that certain acts are so heinous, they disqualify one for full-fledged rehabilitation. Time never exonerates serious criminality. As U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White wrote to the U.S. Parole Commission, “Even if Susan Rosenberg now professes a change of heart . . . the wreckage she has left in her wake is too enormous to overlook.” Economics professor James Bradfield concurs: “[H]er character, as manifestly demonstrated by the choices that she made as an adult over a sustained periods of years, would preclude her appointment to the faculty of Hamilton College.”

President Joan Hinde Stewart disagrees. “No one is irredeemable—I think that is incontrovertible,” she told the faculty. Learning from mistakes “affirms the value of education,” adds Professor Rabinowitz. Most people who have seen The Shawshank Redemption, or listened to a recovering alcoholic speak about his disease, would agree. For while some may not deserve a third or fourth chance, most should get a second. People can and do change, and when we stop believing in that capacity to grow, in the transformative power of the human spirit, we stop believing in the reason to get up in the morning.

But it behooves us to distinguish between morbid curiosity and value. Certainly, Ms. Rosenberg offers a unique perspective, but neither uniqueness nor exclusivity is an end in itself. The end is academic substance. And the means is academic credentials, since even if “Resistance Memoirs” is merely a five-week, half-credit course, that credit nonetheless counts toward a Hamilton College diploma. To be sure, adjuncts need not have a PhD or scholarly publications; yet it is not too much to ask, as several professors did fruitlessly, that Ms. Rosenberg’s curriculum vitae be made available. Plus, just as John Kerry made his service in Vietnam a cornerstone of his recent presidential bid, and consequently suffered criticism for that admittedly heroic record, so the Kirkland Project’s distortion of Ms. Rosenberg’s background invited scrutiny. “[I]ncarcerated for years as a result of her political activities with the Black Liberation Army,” as fliers around the campus announced, sanitizes a vile and vicious rap sheet.

Moreover, surely there was someone with more qualifications, or at least with less baggage? In fact, Professor Rabinowitz told me, “We did not look for anyone else.” In other words: we wanted Susan Rosenberg because she was a convicted, leftwing terrorist.

Rosenberg’s supporters, who include Professors of History, Government and Comparative Literature Maurice Isserman, Stephen Orvis and Peter Rabinowitz (Nancy’s husband), believe the controversy resulted from right-wing polemicists into whose preexisting agendas Susan Rosenberg happened to fall. After all, the Kirkland Project, many of whose almost 40 members are Hamilton professors, approved Ms. Rosenberg’s hire, and Ms. Rosenberg visited Hamilton in February, during which she participated in two panels on “the science of incarceration” and “making change/making art.” Her presence, then or at the aforesaid schools, stirred little attention (though John Jay has since announced that it will not renew her contract.)

All this is true, yet all this discounts the qualitative difference between teaching a credit-bearing course for five weeks and lecturing for two days. Such naïveté further snubs the hundreds of heartfelt pleas to the college, not only from readers of FrontPage Magazine but also from people whom the Weather Underground’s activities intimately, permanently affected. Edward F. Moore, President of the New York state chapter of the F.B.I. National Academy Associates, who wrote an open letter to President Stewart, has no axe to grind, merely a conscience to quiver.

In the end, Susan Rosenberg withdrew herself. Her legacy at Hamilton will not be the pros and cons of her appointment, but the process by which the arguments and their proponents wrestled: passionately but professionally, with moral seriousness and deep principles on both sides. The Board of Trustees wisely refrained from micromanaging this explosive affair, trusting instead in free and open exchange among the faculty. They, like students and alumni, did not disappoint. In fact, our letters and essays in the school newspaper and discussions in class, on ListServs and at meetings, testify to the continuing vitality and vigor of higher education.

1 Response to “The Susan Rosenberg Debate”
No Straw Men, indeed Says:
March 21st, 2011

This article is a great example of a weak argument this website is supposedly about critiquing. This article is fundamentally about is Susan Rosenberg a murderer, guilty of participation in the Brinks trial. How can the presumption of innocence before proven guilty exclude Susan Rosenberg? It is an outrage to the victims of Brinks to claim there wasn’t enough money to prosecute her IF THERE WAS EVIDENCE THAT SHE DID SO. There is not. She said she did not. She did not. If you want to claim otherwise, prove it. This lame, weak series of conjecture sure didn’t.